The New Normal (7) — Through a Glass Darkly

Foggy window illustrates that we cannot see the future in detail, but we can see an outline.

In last week’s post — The New Normal (6) — Standards — we mentioned that we have added a new chapter to the draft of the book Faith in a Changing Climate. The chapter title is ‘Dress Rehearsal’. We look at some of the lessons we can learn from the current COVID-19 pandemic, and how those lessons can be applied to the bigger picture of climate change and resource depletion.

The pandemic is still in its early stages; none of us know what its long-term consequences are going to be — so much depends on whether we can find a vaccine and/or an effective treatment. Applying lessons from the pandemic is very much a work in progress. There is, however, one immediate lesson, and that is the need for humility when making forecasts. This is a subject that we have already touched on in the post The Future Is A Muddle, but it is worth looking at it again. To state the obvious, our world has been totally transformed in just three months. Yet no one saw this coming — it has been a total surprise and shock.

One of my favorite Bible readings is from 1 Corinthians in which the Apostle Paul says,

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

The picture at the top of this post shows a fogged-up window. At first all that we see is a blur. But, on closer inspection, we see that there are railings, a river and hills in the distance. We cannot see the details but we can see an outline — and the harder we look the more we see. So it is with our view of the future in an Age of Limits. We cannot predict what will happen in detail, and specific predictions are often (usually) wrong. But we have a general sense as where we may be heading. (Modern translations of the Bible suggest that the word ‘mirror’ would be a better choice than ‘glass’. In Paul’s day most mirrors distorted the reflection. But the conclusion is the same. We can see an outline, but the details are blurred.)

Our failure to have predicted this disease can create a cynical attitude toward all forecasting. As Scott Adams once said,

Methods for predicting the future: 1) read horoscopes, tea leaves, tarot cards, or crystal balls . . . collectively known as “nutty methods;” 2) put well-researched facts into sophisticated computer . . . commonly referred to as “a complete waste of time.”

But forecasting the impact of an issue such as climate change is not a “complete waste of time”. We know that it is happening right now, and we have a general sense of what is in store for us. We just need to be very careful about being too detailed or precise in our predictions.

In his post How to Predict the Future: Confessions of a Cassandra Ugo Bardi provides three “rules” for decent predictions. They are,

  1. Always trust thermodynamics;
  2. Always mistrust claims of marvelous new technologies; and
  3. Always remember that the system has unpredictable tipping points.

The third of these rules, the one to do with tipping points, has certainly been applicable in the last three months.

Author: Ian Sutton

Ian Sutton is a chemical engineer who has worked in the chemical, refining and offshore oil and gas industries. He is the author of many books, ebooks and videos.

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